Note: This episode is part one of the two part conversation with food industry association CEOs, Michael Dykes and Julie Anna Potts. Part two will be released on August 25.
The baking industry has heroically stepped up during the pandemic, but bakers are far from alone in facing extreme challenges.
The food industry overall has been forced to improvise. Bakers can learn from the experiences and responses of other food industry sectors, such as dairy and meat.
In the latest episode of the American Bakers Association podcast, Bake to the Future, association leaders from the dairy and meat sectors relay their pandemic stories and insights. Those leaders are Michael Dykes, President and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), and Julie Anna Potts, President and CEO of the North American Meat Institute (NAMI). The executives were interviewed by Robb MacKie, ABA’s President and CEO.
MacKie, in addition to his ABA role, facilitates a group of food and beverage association CEOs — including Dykes and Potts — whose meetings took on new importance during the COVID-19 crisis.
“When we got our group together in the very first days of the pandemic, before we went virtual, we all agreed that our mission was to protect our employees while feeding the country,” MacKie recalled.
Adjusting to Shifting Dynamics
A common element impacting food industry sectors during the pandemic is the stark difference between the fortunes of retail and foodservice. Companies supplying the retail sector generally experienced surging demand for products. On the other hand, companies primarily serving foodservice customers faced sharp sales declines.
“About 50% of our business in dairy is in the retail sector and about 50% is in food service,” Dykes said, citing a ratio that is very similar on the baking side. “So almost overnight, we lost 50% of our business.”
Complicating the hurdles was the highly perishable nature of milk and the difficulty in shifting distribution from foodservice to retail.
“The problem we had was making the transition with distribution logistics and supply chain to get the milk from our bottlers over to the retail side,” Dykes added. “It took us a little while to make that happen, but we've been able to get that done.”
Added MacKie, “It does take time for our respective industries to adapt to that new supply chain to make this work.”
Overcoming Workforce Challenges
Another development was workforce hurdles. Companies across the food industry faced major challenges on this front. The meat industry in particular drew negative media headlines as plant workers tested positive for coronavirus.
“Meat processing is a very labor intensive activity,” Potts said. “If you talk to meat industry veterans who've been around for decades, they’ll say this is the most challenging time they’ve lived through.”
However, the meat industry proactively took charge of the situation early on. Meat industry leaders enacted a range of strategies, including the following:
- Procuring personal protective equipment, and even flying it in from overseas
- Enacting employee temperature checks
- Pressing federal agencies for guidance on protocols
- Boosting communications with employees and communities, including via multiple languages
- Creating strategies for physical spacing that includes barriers between work locations
Sharing Best Practices and Resources
MacKie recalled how the food and beverage industry came together to share best practices and identify resources, even ahead of guidance from government.
“Literally, we were sharing best practices from across our various industry sectors,” he said. “Eventually government agencies were able to catch up.”
An early focus was making sure the food and beverage industry was viewed as part of the critical infrastructure addressing this national emergency, MacKie noted. That status was critical to maintaining operations and enabling workers to avoid curfews or travel restrictions.
Achieving Success Through Adaptability
It’s not a stretch to say the food industry learned that adaptability is a crucial skill set during a crisis. Companies will no doubt continue to embrace this skill set in the future. Leaders found that success required acting quickly, even before all the facts were in, and coming together with partners.
“I think we have been very flexible as a broad food and beverage industry,” MacKie said. “We’ve adapted to new learning. And I just don't know that people really appreciate how much that came together and how quickly it all came together.”